Family ties are challenged and remade during politically divisive and tumultuous times in Véronique Olmi’s intimate and brilliantly written novel, Daughters Beyond Command.
Political, literary, historically engaged and socially minded, French dramatist and author Véronique Olmi’s novel, Daughters Beyond Command (Europa Editions, translated by Alison Anderson), traces the changing lives of three sisters, and their immediate family, in the years following the uprisings of 1968 to the election of France’s first Left Wing post-war leader, François Mitterand, in 1981. Reading this novel, it comes as no surprise that Olmi was awarded the Prix Alain-Fournier for her novel Bord de Mer (2001); nor that her twelve plays have received such critical acclaim. Daughters Beyond Command is a brilliant and expansive novel of inter-generational bonds, backlashes, secrets and alliances.
France in the 1970s saw the introduction of the pill, the legalisation of abortion, a rise in protests for homosexual rights, and the acceleration and fragmentation of the second wave feminist movement. In Daughters Beyond Command, this decade sparks a growing gap between the aspirations of three sisters – Sabine, Hélène and Mariette – and those of their dutiful Catholic parents, especially of their mother, Agnès, who stands back as her daughters walk into a world arrived for her twenty years too late, the sacrificial lamb of their emancipation. Indeed, written in a period in which these freedoms are once again (at risk of) being eroded, Daughters Beyond Command reads with a certain energy and a subtle, implicit call to action. Its current global context being the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, violent government sanctions on women’s dress laws in Iran and a myriad of other macro and micro infringements on women’s rights, Olmi’s novel traces “the power of past rebellions” to spotlight the “blind courage” needed to “rescue hope” in grave times. As the author continues, “you had to tell children the truth, telling the truth removed layers of sadness that women from the same family handed down like an old suit from one generation to the next,” and that is, in one sense, what her newest novel does.
For Olmi, each sister acts as a locus around which to explore key changes in legislation and lifestyle. She begins with Hélène, the middle daughter, who lives between her uncle David’s house in Neuilly (a wealthy home in a wealthy suburb just North-West of Paris) and her parents’ modest abode in Aix-en-Provence, in which there is “so little furniture that their voices echo.” Caught between two homes, two classes, the centre and periphery of popular culture, change, revolution, Hélène sits apart from her sisters, isolated by the affluence of her part-time situation and party to the impact of events like the factory workers strikes on the industrialist bourgeoisie. For her sister Sabine, this “money didn’t just buy horses, servants, it also allowed you to have a body and for your body to be free.” As such, in the midst of different trajectories, it is not always clear in Daughters Beyond Command who has made the ‘right’ decisions in life, whether they are guided by religious, economic, political or familial principles. Everyone’s freedoms are caught up in their context, their history, their upbringing, which, Olmi writes, “covers us like a skin.”
This is manifest in Sabine, Hélène and Mariette’s relationship to their parents’ generation, from whom they feel “separated by more than one generation…their parents had lived through the Second World War [which] situated them in a remote place.” Their parents are part of a monumental spectacle, of History. For Sabine, the eldest sister, there are scissions in time where her mother steps out of this backdrop and, for a short while, the two form a sort of alliance, by birth and by sex. Their newfound (though short-lived) bond is sparked by growing conversations around women’s reproductive rights and freedoms, in particular the Veil Law (named after the French politician and women’s rights campaigner Simone Veil), which legalised abortion. In Daughters Beyond Command, televised events, public debates and speeches act as a conduit for change in the family home, with Agnès, who treats Veil with humorous reserve, reflecting: “I was watching Simone Veil, I didn’t agree with her, naturally, sometimes I even thought it was incredibly boring, and maybe because I was bored, I got a little spaced-out, anyway, I don’t know…her words were like a punch in the gut…I want so badly to get out of the house…I absolutely have to do something to make a living”. One of the most tender aspects of Olmi’s writing is that it envelops the reader in the day-to-day thoughts of its characters, those small, seemingly inconsequential ideas and actions that drive forward revolution, the making of history with a small ‘h’, the warp that holds the weft of the past.
Set against the economic instability and political oppressions reported under the Soviet regime, Agnès and her husband Bruno are concerned by the lively spirit of change adopted by their three daughters. For Bruno, his authority, his word, the Catholic school in which he teaches are all challenged, not just by socio-political changes, but by the women closest to him, his wife and daughters. Bruno struggles to understand why the status quo should change: he has a wife, food on the table, they are no longer living through a war; everything is easy. He represents the best parts of patriarchal domination (if that isn’t an oxymoron in itself), and with benevolent naivety supports his daughters at an emotional distance through song, pop-cultural mediators, whilst doubting his own place within this new narrative. For Agnés, whose life has been dictated by marriage, family and motherhood, change is necessarily fraught, but equated with a vicarious sort of emancipation. As their youngest daughter Mariette begins to start building a life separate from her parents, Agnès reminds herself that Mariette “belonged to a rescued generation for whom making love was not reduced to ‘being careful,’” that her secrets would be different.
In that sentiment is held the joy of Olmi’s novel. Daughters Beyond Command is a story full of hope, of seasoned clarity. Just as “open wounds flow like the river” in the streets of Olmi’s Paris, this novel is full of the revolutionary spirit of past uprisings, the sorrow of past failures and the repressed hopes and desires of past generations: “the trace of them is everywhere” and they call to a new generation. I learnt a lot when reading the novel, but it did not feel like school. In fact, caught up in the personal dramas of each character, Daughters Beyond Command has a tempting, compelling energy that drew me through its chapters like rushing water. The intimacy of Olmi’s writing places her readers in the rivers of change as the rapids are building. And it is jolting when the novel ends, because the story does not. This is, perhaps, where the implicit call to action lays.
Véronique Olmi’s Daughters Beyond Command, translated by Alison Anderson, is published by Europa Editions and available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.